Just as Mt. Hood has the Timberline Trail and Mt. Rainier the Wonderland, Mt. St. Helens has the Loowit Trail completely encircling the wild lands of her flanks. It is the shortest distance of the three, and almost certainly the least well traveled upon.
The loop trail is a little over 28 miles, accessed by hiking in from one of seven trail heads around the mountain, of which June Lake is the shortest and where I started. This puts the entire journey at around 31 miles.
The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument encompassing the volcano and its surrounding areas has been one of my favorite places to explore in the Northwest. Its multitude of outstanding vistas, wildlife, spring flower displays and incredible volcanic geology amaze and intrigue me like few other places. Hiking the Loowit Trail has been high on my list of adventures, and this spell of great late season weather made this the perfect opportunity. Plus, having just been up on the Crater Rim, I was itching for more volcano.
When I pulled into the June Lake trail head on the south side of Mt. St. Helens, I turned off the car and was immediately struck by the enveloping darkness. There was no light penetrating the dense moisture laden fog around me, a far cry from earlier in the week up at Climbers Bivouac when the clear sky was filled with a plethora of glowing of stars. Outside the air was so thick and moisture laden the view in my headlamp was more a thick glow, the beam not penetrating far but refracting around the millions of particles of moisture in the air. I put on my rain jacket, loaded up my pack and started heading north toward June Lake, the roar of the creek rising up unseen. Within a half mile I shed my jacket and stowed it in my pack, where it would remain for the rest of the day- I would be in and out of mist and clouds all day, but never in any serious precipitation. The trail is wide and slopes gently uphill for 1.1 miles to a bridge crossing the creek next to a behemoth of a tree. The area flattens and opens up around the small lake where the falls, unseen in the dark, crashes into June Lake. Switchbacks take you quickly up a 1/4 mile to the beginning (and end!) of the Loowit Trail.
Here the first of many lava flows rose up, an immense crumble of chunks of lava boulders with mosses clinging here and there trying to get a foothold. A little too excited, I managed to start heading straight up along a bit of user trail that quickly rose up the side of the lava. I realized fairly quickly my mistake, checked my GPS track with the route and scrambled along and back down, over and along couch sized crumbles of lava. Back on the trail, which nicely follows right along the abrupt edge of the flow and inside the forest, I continued on my journey.
Slowly the sky and mist around me began to take on a blue tint as I scrambled onto and through the lava flows. The way across the flows is indicated by sporadic posts placed into the rocks and there are sporadic bits of flat paths of ashy sandy soils. For the most part, the easiest method of travel is to locate the next post and head straight there, keeping on top of the boulders and stepping rock to rock. I find that the extra points of contact provided by trekking poles helps to speed me along in this terrain and keeps my center of balance upright and moving forward instead of having to drop down and scramble more or find hand holds.
Before too long the I crossed through the Worm Flows are where the winter climbing route crosses the trail heading uphill. Through here some drainage’s that have been scrubbed bare by the flows.
The trail goes steadily uphill and re-enters forest, a stretch lined by dew covered grasses that quickly soaked my shoes and into my pants. Nearing the Ptarmigan Trail I could hear the sounds of hikers heading up from Climbers Bivouac for an early morning summit, and passed one couple taking a break at the cross. Soon after I emerged out onto the Swift Creek Flow for some more lava scrambling, pausing occasionally to search across the field for a sign of the trail, one of the posts, or any of the sporadic small cairns built up on boulders that hikers or bikers have placed to guide the way. The trail passes through some lovely grassy slopes in between flows as it heads towards Butte Camp Dome.
As the trail exited the last of the lava flows (for many miles at least) the sun was breaking out and I could see blue sky through a thin veil of mist. The terrain opened up to rocky hillsides barren except for grasses and some stunted trees. For now I could see unobstructed up to the top of the volcano
The trail enters some young forest growth where there was lots of elk sign and eventually descends along a canyon cut in the ash and volcanic sediment. The top layer of sediment with moss growing right up to falling down into the canyon evidence of the rapid erosion and constant widening of its edges.
There are ropes anchored to help you in and out of the steep, crumble walls of the canyon.
In another 1 and 3/4 miles you come up onto Crescent Ridge with some impressive views of the canyon. From here the trail starts to head down the ridge, and looking northwest I could see a dense bank of clouds hovering near the top of the ridges despite the clear sky behind me.
In about a mile and a half the trail descends 1500 feet through old growth forest, to look out over verdant moss covered steps above the south fork of the Toutle River canyon. Another set of ropes helps you in and out of the canyon. The water running in the Toutle was running crystal clear and I paused for a drink and to fill for the next leg of the journey. The next water that wasn’t thick with silt would be from the spring in 7.6 miles in the blast zone.
The trail emerges from the canyon and opens up on one of the most stunning vistas along the trail, and frankly that I have seen in all the Northwest. The wide expanse of the canyon cutting up the slopes of mountain, the green moss and tree covered edges of the debris and ash flows, and the barren landscape of the slope below my feet provided a dramatic landscape.
The trail here ascends across a slope of sandy ash and pumice across a trail barely wider than a goat path, which indeed was covered in mountain goat and elk prints. Barley any vegetation had taken hold except in small clumps here and there.
At the top of this denuded hill the northwestern expanse of the blast zone opens up, a rocky, dusty landscape of low vegetation and pumice scattered hillsides and gullies.
Dipping into some of the protected areas of small drainage’s I noticed the edges and tops of immense trees, bleached, broken and mostly buried- a reminder that a forest once existed here, now buried under so much debris.
A dense layer of clouds had settled in just around the tops of the surrounding peaks, not blocking the expansive view of the terrain but keeping the sun at bay through what would otherwise have been a hot section of trail. I ran a good bit of the next four and half miles through the open gently rolling terrain, dipping in and out of rocky drainage’s before getting my first views up into the breach of Mt. St Helens, silhouetted by the early afternoon sun.
The area becomes even more sparse, a flat, rock covered expanse where you cross some creeks draining out of the craters glaciers. The trail heads towards the breach gaining elevation on tiered set of ledges, a feature called the Sasquatch Steps. Loowit Falls becomes visible ahead and, with better views accessed from a short spur trail off of the Loowit. To the north the expanse of the Pumice Plain stretches out towards Spirit Lake. A few huge herds of Elk were spread out and grazing.
From there the trail winds east, dipping in and out of small gullies draining through the layers of pumice and rock, dry for now. The trail crosses a spring, or rather the spring crosses and runs down the trail for a bit. I filled up and continued on my way towards Windy Pass.
As the canyon narrowed and I headed up the narrow rock switch backs funneling me toward the pass, denser clouds moved in and splashed off the walls, rolling up and obscuring the sun perched directly above the pass.
The view behind me was of a now thick layer of cloud below, spilling over the pumice plane, with only the jagged peaks of the Mt. Margaret Backcountry visible poking through. Ahead the mist was quickly rolling off of the flat expanse of the Plains of Abraham. After a few windy moments on pass I started to head down the trail and was greeted by a Mountain Goat facing me on trail just a little ways down the hill. We both paused, hoping the other would move on, but after a while the goat begrudgingly left the trail and passed over me uphill, heading back up the the pass.
The descent down from Windy Pass crosses probably the most challenging spot on the whole trail in terms of exposure risk and poor footing. I remember it being crummy a few years ago and I think it has only eroded further. The trail comes to a section that is essentially bare, hard rock or soil sloping down with nothing to really stop you from a quick descent to the pile of boulders filling the drainage spilling out of the canyon below the pass. There’s no real good spot to put your feet on the section where the trail cuts through, but just down to the right there is some darker patch of rock with more stable features poking out of the hillside. I used this patch to keep hand holds while lowering myself down to some stable footing.
Once down in the plains I picked up my pace and ran some more on the soft pumice and level trails, watching more goats scattering far in the distance and hanging out on impossibly steep hillsides. Mt Adams became visible. The trail leads right up to the edge of Ape Canyon which drops off precipitously fast. Here there creek was running slightly and offered some pools of water to drink up from.
The trail continues along some grassier meadows and pumice fields, before coming to a stretch weaving along the sandy slopes and rocky areas of the upper reaches of the Muddy River and then the great chasm below the Shoestring Glacier. The trail progresses through the Worm Flows and up onto lava flows (though with much better trail than earlier). Forest starts to fill the valleys below, trees cropping up on the mossy lava all around.
By now the sun had fallen below the dense back of clouds I could see filling the valleys out west, adding some color to the darkening sky as I descended into the forest. Hiking up above a creek flowing through the edge of the lava field, I pulled back out my headlamp just as I came to the junction with the June Lake Trail, completing the circuit of the Loowit Trail.
I spared no time in heading down hill to the flat around June Lake, crossed the bridge over the creek, and then ran through the last downhill section in the thickening darkness. Just as I reached the trail head and my car a brilliant, nearly full moon glowed through some thin clouds and the regrowing forest.
I completed the trek in just over 11 and a half hours, starting and ending in the dark, with only 26 minutes of stopped time, mostly comprised of standing spell-struck by the hard to comprehend terrain and take photos that hardly do justice to the scenery. I fueled my hike with around 3 Gu’s, 4 protein/snack bars, and a packet of almond butter. Compared to my experiences day hiking the Timberline Trail, I’d say that this one is every bit a challenge as that, the extra miles around Mt. Hood replaced with wilder, harder terrain than Timberlines veritable highway.
This hike is a journey through eons of time in the life and layers of a volcano. You literally see millennia stacked one on top of one another, cut through by cataclysmic events. Looking into the layers cut through in the canyons you have a window into the genesis of the mountains. Hiking through the blast zone shows just a moment in that history of constant change, and observing life creep back in from devastation marks the incredible progress and resilience of biology. Inside the crater, once the heart of the mountain the lava dome steams, actively growing, rising up towards the day that it reforms a mountain from a crater.
Follow through more pictures of the trail by clicking on the Gallery below-